Eight Attributes of Constructive Communication

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Problem oriented, not person oriented.  Problem-oriented communication focuses on a problem that can be solved rather than the person who is responsible for the problem.  An example of problem-oriented communication is if a committee chair were to tell a committee member, “That topic is not on today’s agenda.”  On the other hand, an example of person-oriented communication would be, “You’re off topic.”  Person-oriented communication puts the listener on the defensive and focuses the attention on blame rather than on avoiding or solving future problems.
Congruent, not incongruent.  Congruent communication conveys what the speaker is thinking and feeling.  There are definitely situations where discretion is a more appropriate choice than full disclosure of what we think and feel.  However, in most communication situations, we communicate more effectively when we’re candid.  If we aren’t honest, listeners won’t trust what we say.  A common example of incongruent communication is saying that “it’s no big deal” or “I don’t mind” when you are in fact discussing an important issue.  We’re constructive when we use congruent communication because we’re giving the other party the truth rather than misleading them.
Descriptive, not evaluative.  Evaluative communication expresses judgment of the listener, or his or her actions.  To be a constructive communicator, we should objectively describe problems rather than speak in an evaluative manner.  An example of a blatantly evaluative statement would be, “Your last shipment was screwed up.”  Evaluative communication puts the listener on the defensive.  It’s more descriptive and therefore more constructive to say, “Your last shipment left out an important piece.”
Validating, not invalidating.  Validating communication helps people feel understood, valued, and accepted.  In contrast, invalidating communication treats people as if they are ignored, worthless, or alienated.  Invalidating communication is superiority-oriented, rigid, impervious and/or indifferent.
Consider this example: A marketing manager must correct one of her staff members for releasing a sales collateral package to the salesforce without a PowerPoint presentation that should have been included.  When the marketing manager raises the issue with the staff member, he tells her, “I just thought it would be better to send the materials we did have right away to give the sales reps more time to become familiar with them than to wait on the PowerPoint presentation to be finished.  I sent them an e-mail explaining that.”  The following responses by the marketing manager are examples of invalidating communication:

  • “Take my word for it, sending incomplete packages causes more problems than it solves,” is an example of superiority-oriented communication.
  • “We have never sent them incomplete packages,” is an example of rigidity.
  • “Well, I guess you thought wrong,” is an example of imperviousness.
  • “And burn new CDs when we get the PowerPoint–don’t e-mail it to them,” is an example of indifference, because it ignores the staff member’s comment altogether.

Validating communication avoids treating the listener like a lesser person or being inflexible, impervious or indifferent.  Validating communication shows respect for the other party’s thoughts and feelings, even when there’s disagreement.  One of the most effective ways of doing that is by finding a point of agreement.  For instance, the marketing manager could have said, “I agree that getting sales collateral out in a timely fashion is a high priority.  But, sending incomplete packages creates more hassles than delivery delays.  Two reps called me today complaining that they didn’t get the PowerPoint.  Please call the others to let them know that the PowerPoint isn’t ready yet.”
Specific, not global.  There are two key drawbacks to global statements of problems; they’re often too large to be resolved and they tend to oversimplify and misrepresent problems.  For instance, if the manager were to say to the staff member, “You’re confusing the sales reps,” the comment is too general to be accurate and helpful.  First, even if sending the package without the PowerPoint created confusion, some of the sales reps probably understood the omission.  So, that global statement is wrong, and that kind of inaccuracy adds fuel to the defensiveness.  (The staff member thinks, “Only the idiots who don’t read their e-mail are confused.”)  Second, it doesn’t tell the staff member what he should do to improve.  Maybe he can figure it out, but a more specific statement would explain what the coach expects in the future.  A more specific statement would be, “Sending incomplete packages creates more hassles than delivery delays, so let’s avoid sending incomplete packages.”
Conjunctive, not disjunctive.  Disjunctive communication takes at least three forms; not letting the other party speak, long pauses, and switching topics.  Disjunctive communication can result in the other party thinking that their input is not being considered.  Having a discussion that bounces around from one topic to another without bringing closure to any topic is not constructive.
Owned, not disowned.  When we “own” our communication, we take responsibility for our statements and acknowledge that we are the source of the ideas conveyed and not someone else.  We “disown” communication when we search for third parties to attribute our comments to.  For instance, if the manager would have said, “The sales reps asked me to ask you not to send them incomplete packages,” she would have disowned the communication.  We have more respect for a person who will be accountable for the requests they make.
Listening, not one-way message delivery.  As June’s LeaderLetter explains, effective listening is actively absorbing the information given to you by a speaker, showing that you are listening and interested, and providing feedback to the speaker so that he or she knows the message was received.  Effective listening is often taken for granted, but it’s a valuable managerial tool.

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